He brought the car down onto the grass and reached over for the two yellow flags he kept in the glove compartment. It was a pointless exercisesix meters in front, six meters behindbut someone had taken great pains to devise die Verkehrsnotverfahren (emergency traffic procedures), the totality of which filled a full eight pages in the bureau's slender handbook on automobile operation: Who was he to question their essentialness? The flags blew aimless warning to the deserted road as Hoffner lay on his back and pulled himself under.
Surprisingly, everything looked to be in working order. Various metal shafts stretched across at odd angles. Metal boxes to hold other metal things were bolted to iron casings, and while there were two or three wires hanging down from their protective coverseach wrapped in some sort of black adhesivenothing appeared to be torn or strained or even mildly put out. The wood above was worn but whole, and the tires looked somehow thicker from this vantage point.
Hoffner imagined much the same might have been said of his own fifty-three-year-old frame: shoulders still wide even if the barrel chest was relocating south with ever-increasing speed. He caught sight of a line of blurred handwriting on one of the tires and slowly inched his way over. Closer in, the scrawl became Frankreich, Süd, 26117-7-6, Vichy.
Hoffner smiled. These had been slated for reparations, not surplus,
and yet somehowjust somehowthey had failed to make it across
the border. In fact, very little these days was making it to the French
or English or Belgians or Italianshow the Italians had managed to
get in on the spoils, having sided with the Kaiser up through 1915, still
puzzled himexcept, of course, for the great waves of money. There,
things were decidedly different. The French might have been willing
to turn a blind eye to a few tires ending up in the service of Berlin's
police corps, but if so much as a single pfennig of repayments, or
interest on repayments, or interest on the loans taken out to pay for
the interest on those repayments went missing, then came the cries
from Paris for the occupation of the Rhine and beyond. It was a constant
plea in the papers from the ever-teetering Social Democrats to
keep our new allies happy, keep the payments flowing out, no matter
how many times the mark had to be revalued or devalued or carted
around like so many reams of waste tissue just to pay for a bit of
bread. Luckily, the worst of it was behind them now, or so said those
same papers: who cared if Versailles and its treaty were beginning to
prompt some rather unpleasant responses from points far right? Odd,
but Hoffner had always thought Vichy in the north.
He slid out, planted himself on the running board, and flipped open his flask. The Hungarians, thank God, had remained loyal to the Kaiser up to the bitter end: little chance, then, of a shortage on slivovitz anytime soon. He took a swig of the brandy and stared out into the green wood as a familiar burning settled in at the back of his throat. A trio of wild boar was digging up the ground no more than twenty meters off. They were a dark brown, and their haunches looked fat and muscular. These had done well to keep the meat on during the winter. The smallest turned and cocked its head as it stared back. No hint of fear, it stood unwavering. Clearly, it knew it was not its place to cede ground. Hoffner marveled at the misguided certainty.
He tossed back a second drink just as a goose-squawk horn rang out from the road. Hoffner turned to see a prewar delivery truck pulling up, its open back packed with small glass canisters, each filled with some sort of blue liquid. Hoffner wondered if perhaps he might have failed to hear about an imminent hair tonic shortage, but the man who stepped from the cab quickly put all such concerns to rest. He was perfectly bald, with a few stray wisps of black matted down above the ears. Hoffner stood as he approached.
Excerpted from Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb. Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Rabb. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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